The Delicately-Hued Say's Phoebe Flycatcher Doesn't Need to Drink Water and Prefers the Dry Country of the West

Updated on July 1, 2019
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Dorothy and Mike are both avid birders who have created a bird sanctuary in their backyard where most of the bird photos were taken.

A Bird of the Open, Dry Country

The Say's Phoebe is a beautiful bird.  This juvenile bird perched on the shepherd's hook that holds our bird feeders but showed no interest in the bird seed; instead he was eyeing the flying insects from a great vantage point.
The Say's Phoebe is a beautiful bird. This juvenile bird perched on the shepherd's hook that holds our bird feeders but showed no interest in the bird seed; instead he was eyeing the flying insects from a great vantage point. | Source

Discovered by Thomas Say (1787-1834)

It would be impossible to write an article about the Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya) without discussing the brilliant, self-taught naturalist who first discovered it, Thomas Say. He was a founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, as well as an explorer and a pioneering natural scientist.

In the nineteenth century, Say founded the science of entomology and conchology in the United States and wrote the first book published there on insects, American Entomology (1824-1828). His life was devoted to establishing natural science in America, feeling it was an institution that deserved respect from people around the world.

The Say's Phoebe was first described by Say during an expedition to the Rocky Mountains from 1819 to 1820, during which he also described many other birds, including a western kingbird, a band-tailed pigeon, a rock wren, a lesser goldfinch, a lark sparrow, an orange-crowned warbler, and a lazuli bunting.

Say was the first person who described all three species of Phoebes - the Eastern Phoebe, the Black Phoebe, and the Say's Phoebe.

Areas Preferred by the Say's Phoebe

The bottom area in blue shows the non-breeding area for the Say's Phoebe.  The purple shows where they be found year-round.  The peach-colored area shows where they can be found during breeding season.
The bottom area in blue shows the non-breeding area for the Say's Phoebe. The purple shows where they be found year-round. The peach-colored area shows where they can be found during breeding season. | Source

Where the Say's Phoebe Can Be Found

The Say's Phoebe makes its home in the arid western states, where it can usually be seen around desert ponds or canyons, or around farmlands. We live within the city limits of Albuquerque and have been fortunate enough to have a few of them visit our backyard, although they are not interested in our feeders - only in the flying insects and our birdbaths, where they drop in for a cool drink of water occasionally.

They are a widespread bird here in New Mexico and they prefer platform nests. You can find them nesting in abandoned buildings, under bridges, or under the eaves of a residence. This New World Flycatcher

Say's Phoebes are mostly solitary during the non-breeding season.

Description

The Say's Phoebe blends very well into its surroundings, with its rather drab gray-brown back, black tail, and cinnamon-colored belly. Both the male and female birds are dark gray overall, having the darkest gray on the head area, tail, and wings. The bill is black. The juvenile bird is very similar to the adult bird but is browner overall with two tawny wing bars and a yellow lower bill.

This is a juvenile Say's Phoebe; note the tawny wing bars that distinguish it from the adult birds.
This is a juvenile Say's Phoebe; note the tawny wing bars that distinguish it from the adult birds. | Source

Baby Birds Out of the Next But Fed by Parent

The diet of a Say's Phoebe consists almost entirely of insects, including wild bees and wasps, flies, grasshoppers and beetles. Typically, they will perch within a few feet of the ground, then make a direct flight out into the air to capture prey.

Nesting

The most important factor in identifying a suitable nesting location is finding one that provides shelter from above. The pair will seek out a nesting site together, preferring a pocket inside a cave, a platform beneath a bridge, in a barn, or under a protected ledge of a building.

The female bird will use wood, grass, rocks, plant stems, sage and spiderwebs to form the base of the nest, which will be shaped like a cup. The nest, which is about six inches wide and long will have a cup that is about four inches in diameter and usually lined with feathers, paper, hair or wool.

Sometimes the birds will reuse their nest from the previous season or use a nest built by other species of birds. The only improvement they make to an old nest is the addition of a fresh lining of hair and feathers.

A pair of Say's Phoebes will produce two broods, each with a clutch of about 3-6 eggs, which are usually white and unmarked. The incubation period is from 12-18 days. The baby birds are naked at birth with their eyes shut and will remain in the nest for 2-3 weeks.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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